There was something missing when I interviewed Fran Drescher. It wasn’t her signature voice, which was present and accounted for and can probably be identified by deaf dogs on Saturn. Nor was it her infectious personality; our 45-minute talk didn’t feel so much like an interview as it did a casual conversation. And it wasn’t her lack of spontaneity; Drescher doesn’t dance around questions or formulate “correct” answers or second-guess her replies; you ask her something and she, very simply, responds.
What was lacking in the interview was Drescher’s trademark humor. Yes, she’s funny, but she never once tried to make me laugh or show off her comedic timing or pretend to be the witty alter-ego of Fran Fine, or, in her new sitcom, Happily Divorced, Fran Lovett. Drescher’s not so much a product of the Hollywood publicity machine as she is the instigator of one of its most popular brand-names. She’s the CEO of herself, and laughter is the hired help.
“I find humor in even the darkest experiences,” Drescher says, on her persona. “Side by side with pain lies joy. It’s true in all of life, and I struck a chord with that.”
The real Fran has had almost as much exposure as the TV Frans, mostly because of her willingness to discuss and write about personal issues. On the morning we spoke, there was a new development. After telling me that she credits her parents for her humor, Drescher matter-of-factly added that her mom fell in her house while on a visit. “Dad’s my roommate right now,” she said, sounding more like my next-door neighbor than a star. “This is a whole new chapter in our lives and it seems to be working out. There’s light at the end of the tunnel.”
That unchecked, almost brazen approach to life might explain why Drescher’s so relatable on screen, and why it doesn’t matter if you’re Jewish or not, a woman or a man, straight or gay. Honesty always reflects. To that end, Drescher’s written three books, the first two autobiographical. In 1997 she penned Enter Whining, followed by Cancer Schmancer, in 2003, about surviving uterine cancer. (Drescher has been cancer-free for 12 years.)
Her most recent book, Being Wendy, is a children’s story, and Drescher says she wanted to use the fame she received from her last hit sitcom to help a younger audience celebrate their uniqueness. “A lot of people who weren’t born when I was shooting The Nanny are watching it now. I can use the strength of the show to make a positive impression on a whole new generation. Being Wendy celebrates uniqueness and not being put in a box. It’s what’s in your heart—that’s the Nanny character.”
In the new season of Happily Divorced, which premieres on TV Land March 7, Drescher will be pouring out more personal stories, this time from the ex-files. Divorced, if you didn’t see it last season, is based on Drescher’s real-life relationship with ex-husband Peter Marc Jacobson, who came out to Drescher a year after their 18-year marriage ended. In real life, and in the show, they are best friends, and perhaps something more.
“We did ten episodes on the first season; it’s not enough time to get to know the supporting cast,” says Drescher on this year’s plotlines, adding, “Fran is dealing with her parents, aging issues that she’s frightened by. Fran and Peter [John Michael Higgins on the show] have to explore their new situation. There’s a struggle about how you relate when there’s a divorce but you still love each other. You’re living with someone who seems to be your soul mate.”
Unlike their sitcom characters, Drescher and Jacobson no longer live together, but the conceit’s a looking glass. Of the show’s protagonists, Drescher says, “We are stuck in this situation for the life of the series.” “In real life,” she adds, “we can’t see what lies ahead. We don’t know the reality of the situation. It may never happen for us because we have each other. I’m not comfortable with that and neither is he.” Ever the optimist, Drescher adds, dryly, “At the end of the day, he’s not such a bad consolation prize.”
Adds Jacobson, “I think, once soul mates, always soul mates. Relationships grow and change. But I am blessed to have that person who, if I need to call at three in the morning, is there. That person is Fran.”
When I pointed out similarities to TV’s other famous gay/straight couple, Will and Grace, Drescher corrected me. “It’s not a gay guy and his hag,” she says. “It’s actually a husband and wife that has morphed into something else.”
Time played a large part in that metamorphosis, and it surfaces on the sitcom. Drescher’s humor has always been self-deprecating, making fun of her hair, her voice, her outfits, and her age. Watch Happily Divorced, and its lead-in, Hot in Cleveland, and it will soon hit you that these characters aren’t in their twenties, or thirties, and yet they’re still worthy of being our friends.
“Thank God for TV Land,” Drescher says. “They recognized that there’s a vast audience out there of people who want to watch a show of their own age group.” Even the determined girl from Flushing, Queens, didn’t approach the studio heads thinking people were interested in chapter two. “My conditioning from a decade of youth and reality shows was to pitch that,” Drescher says. “Before I pitched, they said ‘What would be the show you want to do?’ I said ‘Me and my gay ex-husband.’ They bought the show before the meeting ended.”
Drescher never insisted that Jacobson attach himself publicly to the story—“He said ‘I’m fine with it’”—and knows that a show stays on the air because of merit, not a gimmick. “It put a positive light on Peter, his interest in gay civil liberties,” Drescher says.
“I like things that have meaning and value and have a positive message. Even though it’s very fun, the important global message is love; it’s not conditional. Everyone has the right to live an authentic life.”
They also have the right to an original one, and Drescher’s playing herself off the set. She told me she’s not particularly vain, adding that “The business gives me enough of that. I look good when I gotta look good. I gotta wear makeup. I can’t be overweight because I’m on camera.”
The voice is non-negotiable. “First I did commercials where I didn’t speak,” Drescher says. “But I seemed confidant, and I was pretty. I never connected it to the fact that I didn’t have a commercial voice.” Drescher got a part in a couple of films, including Saturday Night Fever, and “I quickly became the young gal who was pretty and funny with a funny voice. My manger said I’m being pigeonholed; I did take some diction lessons to get a mid-Atlantic dialect, which is nondescript, maybe like Sigourney Weaver speaks. But I didn’t get any work. I lost my sense of humor and I didn’t do well at auditions.”
Voice back, humor-ready, Drescher was due on the set, so I asked her, given all the celebrities who’ve appeared on past shows, who she’d most like as a guest. She immediately said “John Travolta,” and stated it in a way that sounded like she’d never get him. When I asked her why she hadn’t simply called her former cast-mate, Drescher digressed into the business aspect of TV, and how hard it is to get a star of Travolta’s status to appear on your show.
“You just ask the questions,” she pointed out. “I live in the real world.”
In her case, that’s why she’s a star.
For information on Fran Drescher’s Cancer Schmancer non-profit organization, click here. You can also “like” them on facebook or follow them on Twitter. Happily Divorced premieres Wednesday, March 7, at 10:30 p.m.